Leslie Odom Jr. Takes a Whimsical Jazz Journey on Latest Album ‘Mr’
Leslie Odom Jr.’s career is characterized by roles in only the biggest Broadway productions, beginning two decades ago in such features as “Rent,” “Dreamgirls,” and “Jersey Boys.” He’s best known, of course, for his role as Aaron Burr in the larger-than-life “Hamilton,” which earned him both a Tony for “Best Actor in a Musical” and a Grammy for “Best Musical Theater Album.” Over the years, along with the plays and an impressive number of film and television appearances, Odom has taken his musical talents beyond the stage, recording two jazz albums — a self-titled 2014 debut and 2016’s “Simply Christmas.” His latest record “Mr” continues in the same style, a breezy strain of R&B-heavy, pop jazz with a pronounced, theatrical bent.
Holiday season brings a resurgence of music from an era when pop sensibilities were still largely defined by jazz vernacular. This makes “Mr” a well-timed release, as even though the tunes aren’t Christmas songs, they have the same feel to their stylings, and have come out at a time when this aesthetic is particularly appealing. Opener “Stronger Magic” begins like jazz of the most finger-snapping, shopping mall jazz variety — think Michael Buble. Then there’s an exhilarating surprise, as the song suddenly shifts shapes upon the chorus, with sharp snares and hand claps, wonky hi hats, and prominent, soulful backing vocals in an arrangement that propels the sound boldly into the present.
For “Standards,” Odom begins with the type of genteel fare that could scarcely be further removed from jazz’s bold and boisterous origins. Moments in, however, it picks up more attitude, and takes on the shape of jazz-informed soul-rock, of a Joss Stone type. The stilted bombast of the chorus is not material for critics or connoisseurs, but for happy-go-lucky dilettantes. For all his celebratory stature, Odom seems surprisingly strained on the occasional high note. Altogether, however, it’s a dynamic, colorful song, replete with pregnant pauses and fits of passion. “Go Crazy” takes up a Latin-tinged rhythm, with some classic New Orleans touches thrown in for good measure, and the equipment streamlined into an urban pop format, in a style reminiscent of Will I Am’s soundtrack work for 2001’s “Lost Change.” There are echoes of Pharrell Williams too, as in his delivery when he marvels, “She make me go crazy!” The bountiful references keep coming, with a crazed overloaded bit recalling Otis Redding in his most indulgent moments. Overall, the song strikes as a musical number, as theatrical as you might expect from Odom.
“U R My Everything” is an infectious cut that places Odom over a disco one-two punch, on his most breezily hushed, falsetto vocals with dense layering that occasionally evokes the sounds of D’angelo’s cusp of millenial classic “Voodoo” if it were superimposed over ‘70s Soul Train swag, and colored with all the cartoonish excess of Dungeon Family records. The D’angelo echoes continue on “Under Pressure” in both the vocal stylings and this time the crisp, minimal hip-hop beat as well. The song assumes theatrical proportions and pomp with its histrionics and multiple phases coming across as something like R&B with prog rock ambitions. “Cold” features an instantly memorable chorus melody, a fine work of pop songsmithing, albeit perhaps a bit too much so, with Odom so eager to begin belting away that he rushes into it, and cheapens the whole affair. Consequently, the relatively subdued stylings of “Lose It” come as a refreshing change, with Odom crooning in a laid back flow, over reverberating snares and dim-lit keys. This develops unanticipatedly into a lush, dense, string-laden piece, with grandiose vocal gestures halfway between stiff formality and effortless R&B melisma, eventually fit to a trap beat, in a wildly restless shuttling between styles.
Odom has spoken of how his life reached a turning point when a mentor convinced him to stop wasting time and seize the moment. This sentiment makes its way into “Eva’s Song (A Psalm of Life,)” a monologue from an outlandishly gruff voice, professing, “Trust no Future, however pleasant… Act in the living Present.” Odom shines on “Foggy,” a spacious piano and vocal track that clears the clutter, giving him room to breathe, and letting the listener focus on the lyrics and tone. It’s a a soft, sentimental number in the tradition of standards like “My Funny Valentine,” slowly running its course with an especially charged chord here and there making all the difference. Next comes the classical interlude “Entr’Acte (The Joyful Messenger,)” a fanciful, cinematic piece evoking the likes of early Disney movies. Sonically colorful from the beginning, it reaches a peak near the end, when a baby’s laughter enters the mix, as a beat erupts, making the segue into “Hummingbird,” which finds Odom at his most gleeful and flamboyant, with unchecked melisma of the most showy, extravagant variety, buttressed by enthused gospel-styled backup singers.
“Remember Black” starts off with classic bursts of blast, and takes unpredictable turns, receding into a brief neo-soul meditation, until a crescendo prompts the onset of a gripping beat, over which Odom and crew surpass anything yet in their whimsical, creative zeal. The song is an absolute riot, with hocketing, swooning choirs, shapeshifting structures, and unhinged vocal acrobatics. It’s a number to stop you in your tracks and make you marvel. Finally, closer “Freedom” brings the calm after the storm, trodding along gently along the striking chorus line “You feel just like Freedom,” culminating into a gorgeous, dramatic vocal harmony that peaks, bursts, and gently fades away.
Jazz is a genre that has taken so many wildly divergent forms over the last century that it currently exists so detached from its roots as to be hardly recognizable. On one hand, there’s the esoteric, cerebral indulgence confined to conservatories and West Village speakeasies. Then, there’s the laughably diluted, glossed-over easy listening that plays on department store speakers. Odom deals in the latter variety, but infuses it with the spark that comes with a career of consummate showmanship, as well as an informed familiarity with versatile, soulful stylings. “Mr” freely follows whims, and takes stylistic detours, while still coming across as cohesive, and making for Odom’s most adventurous recording to date.
“Mr” is available Nov. 8 on Apple Music.